Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review: The Other Queen

It's a novel. It's historical fiction. I'd definitely have to put more belief in the fiction than the history, as Philippa Gregory gives us a new slant on Mary Queen of Scots in this novel published last year. Told through the eyes of Mary, and the couple chosen to be her 'host and hostess', George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife Bess of Hardwick, the Countess Shrewsbury, we are given a good look at Mary's life in the early days of her forced stay in England. As the imprisonment drags on, we learn as much about the Shrewsbury duo as we do about Mary. Bess is portrayed as a penny-pinching, money grabbing spy for Elizabeth's chief advisor (and Mary's chief protagonist) Lord Cecil. George is Bess's husband #4, and she's heretofore managed to better herself from each previous arrangement, somehow getting hubbies #1,2,3 to deed everything they owned to her, and not the children of any of these unions. In fact the book opens:
Every woman should marry for her own advantage since her husband will represent her, as visible as her front door, for the rest of her life...She can be pious, she can be learned, she can be witty and wise and beautiful, but if she is married to a fool she will be "that poor Mrs. Fool" until the day he dies.
She evidently signed it all over to George when she married him, because she wanted to be a Countess. Now however, she sees her fortune going out the window as the Shrewsburys must foot the extravagant bill for Mary (up to 30 dishes a night for dinner! and a staff of over 100 to be housed and fed, royal linens to be washed, etc etc etc). George on the other hand, being the great honorable Galahad wannebe he was raised to be, finds himself tumbling head over heels in love with Mary, but bound by honor to do Elizabeth's bidding. Until the end , he is duped by Mary, and finds it inconceivable that she would ever participate in any kind of plot against her cousin Elizabeth. Bess recognizes almost immediately what is going on and reports it all faithfully to Cecil. By a careful 'managment of the books' she arranges to have her husbands expenses paid for by 'loans' from her money, and when he is practically forced into bankruptcy, she gets him to sign the houses and lands back over to her. Clever woman our Bess... It is possible to judge Mary Queen of Scots from a number of different perspectives. Gregory's take that she was a conniving wench who used whoever she could to get what she wanted (a throne perhaps???) is probably close to being, as we say here in Maine, spot on. A good listen--well done by the three narrators. It's a great 'read' if for nothing else than to hear Bess of Hartwick expound the feminist views more appropos to the 21st century. Good on her if she was really able to pull them off. The book even ends with Bess' remarks the day Mary is beheaded:
And nobody in this world will ever call me Mrs. Fool.


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